National security expert Tom Nichols: “Hey, I’m unstable” is a bad look for the president

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Donald Trump

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Donald Trump commands the most powerful military in the history of the world. With that responsibility has not come greater self-control, transparency or introspection.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump answered questions about American foreign policy by repeatedly saying that he would not let America’s enemies (or friends) know his plans and that all he would promise was “America first.” After winning the White House, Trump continued with his bluster and childish understanding of statecraft. For the presidential inauguration, he wanted a huge military parade in the style of a foreign dictator or autocrat to make the world tremble before America’s power. (He was dissuaded.)

Trump has threatened countries such as North Korea and Iran with nuclear annihilation. In a speech before the United Nations, Trump engage in juvenile name-calling. He apparently finds it amusing to call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” while threatening to destroy his country. Trump’s nickname for himself remains unknown.

While this nuclear theater of the absurd continues, the national security establishment looks on, its leaders and spokespeople often publicly appear dumbfounded, confused and outright flummoxed by Trump’s behavior. Matters are made only more dire by the very real concerns about the  president’s mental health.

Trump’s defenders and enablers, on the other hand, insist this is all part of a grand strategy sometimes known as the “madman theory.”

How do foreign policy experts evaluate Trump’s presidency? What is the actual likelihood of war with either Iran or North Korea? Given Trump’s apparent mental instability, should it be made more difficult for an American president to launch a nuclear attack? Are Trump’s unpredictability and verbal taunts actually part of a larger and more elaborate strategy?

In an effort an answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tom Nichols. He is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. Nichols is the author of seven books, including “No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security” and “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page. Nichols’ opinions and comments are his own and do not reflect those of the United States government.

Given Trump’s unpredictability in respect to foreign policy, the concept of the “madman theory” has been used by journalists and others to describe his supposed strategy. Can you provide some context for the madman theory? What are its origins?

The madman theory is a notion of deterrence in which you want to convince your opponent that you’re more reckless than he is. Deterrence in its simpler version is like a game of chicken. So if that’s the paradigm, the madman theory is like downing a bottle of vodka in front of your opponent and saying, “You know what, dude, I don’t care if I live or die. I’m crazy. I’m nuts.” On that concept, the other guy is going to swerve first, because he is going to say, “My opponent just isn’t rational.” The problem with the madman theory is that it also makes your opponent very nervous and prone to want to attack first, because you cannot be reasoned with. The biggest problem with Trump has been that if you tell people, “Hey, I’m doing the madman thing,” then you’ve blown the whole idea. You don’t publicly say, “Hey, I’m just trying to appear unreasonable.” Because then your opponent says, “OK, not only are you reckless, you’re stupid.”

How have foreign policy professionals responded to Trump’s apparent embrace of the madman theory?

Well, in my limited conversations with my fellow policy experts on this, I do not think anybody takes it seriously or that Trump is getting over on the North Koreans this way. I do think the North Koreans see him as unpredictable. They’re trying to figure out who is in charge of the U.S. government. But I think all that is bad. I think deterrence is not well served when your opponent can’t figure out who’s running the show. The president of the most powerful country in the world should not say, “Hey, I’m unstable. I could do anything. I’m kind of a madman.”

But I think one of the reasons you hear the madman theory discussed so often now is because President Trump’s supporters are desperate to reverse-engineer some reason for what he’s doing. They’re always trying to present his impulsiveness as a plan. So when he says, “Hey, Rocket Man, I could end you tomorrow.” They say, “Ah, don’t worry, it’s the madman theory. He’s playing four-dimensional chess.” When in fact he’s just tweeting or blurting stuff out. But his supporters have a hard time just admitting that the guy is impulsive. So they come up with elaborate theories about why he’s doing what he’s doing. I don’t think anybody is really buying that, here or anywhere else in the world.

During the campaign Trump said, “Well, I don’t want America’s enemies to know what we’re going to do. … I want to surprise them. That’s how we’re going to win.” That’s how we’re going to make America great again.” 

The great Thomas Schelling, who pioneered a lot of this work back in the ’60s, once said that deterrence rests on the threat that leaves something to chance. The problem is that the way Trump and his mouthpieces are taking it is they’re saying that being totally unpredictable and opaque and nutty is the way to do stuff. Well, that’s just wrong. Deterrence theory would tell you to say to your opponent, “Hey, I’m not interested in war, but you’re setting in motion some things here that can go bad. I can’t tell you that I can stay in control of everything happening. It’s not a perfect world, but I can’t control everything.” This is far preferable to saying, “I’m totally unpredictable.”

If you are North Korea’s leadership, are you terrified after listening to Trump talk about incinerating your country?

Let’s not be too understanding of the North Koreans. Because these are guys that have been talking about turning American cities into seas of fire for several years. The only thing that breaks the pattern is that the North Koreans are not used to American presidents talking this way. There’s actually a [recent article] that said they’ve been reaching out to Republican think tanks and individuals to try to  get some kind of read on Trump. On the other hand, they can watch the disposition of our forces near them. The president can talk all he wants. If nothing is moving, then they have to report back that troops in South Korea are not on alert. So there is a disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

Trump does sound like a belligerent. But it also sounds so over-the-top, I wonder if they take it seriously. After his UN speech, I just kind of sat back and said, “All this does is embarrass us. It doesn’t really send a warning.”

What do you think is going to happen in the near to medium term with North Korea?

What I’m worried about is a misperception of some kind. That both parties misread the signals because they’re so convinced that hostilities are imminent they then decide that it’s go time. Now, I think cooler heads are prevailing everywhere for two reasons. One is that the North Koreans understand that if they start something, the Chinese are going to walk away from it. The Chinese have made it very clear that if America comes after North Korea, they will support them [North Korea].

I think the second reason is that no matter how much rhetoric comes out of the White House, just about everybody in the national security establishment understands that the options are limited right now. If the North Koreans test an actual nuclear missile and explode it over the Pacific, we’re going to be in a different ball game. Because the urge to destroy that program will start becoming overwhelming and it might even change my mind about it.

What about a very basic type of realpolitik, where the North Koreans are told that if they act aggressively towards South Korea or other countries in the region their country will be destroyed?

I think those messages have been sent by every president for years. I mean, Bill Clinton talked about turning North Korea into a parking lot. John McCain, while Clinton was president, actually said, “We would totally eliminate them.” But the North Korean ace in the hole here is always to say, “You guys can talk all you want, but we’ll destroy Seoul. When we go down, we will take hundreds of thousands of people with us. So is it worth it to you?”

In the end, no matter how many times they call us names or claim seas of fire and all that stuff, they know that they can take down Seoul, but that they will go down too. That’s why I said that this status quo, for now, is probably more stable than people realize — if only because it serves the Chinese interest, it serves the South Korean interest, it serves the North Korean interest and it serves our interest not to go to war.

What is the actual procedure for an American president to order the use of nuclear weapons? Is it too easy?  

The system was designed during the Cold War. It wasn’t made to stop the president. It was designed to enable the president. The assumption was — and I think it was a good assumption — that deterrence with the Soviet Union required them to understand that if the president says go, it means go. That the Soviets can’t plunge us into a big existential crisis where there is a big debate in Congress and the whole thing. That if they attack us, or if they look like they’re about to attack us, the president can make a decision and say, “Launch what we’ve got and take them out.”

Now, the problem is that was always predicated on a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack. The United States still has nuclear forces on a “ready to launch in 15 minutes” status as though it were 1961. I don’t actually think that’s a good idea. I think that in the day-to-day operations of the government, there should be a second set of codes.

I wrote a piece in USA Today where I suggested there should be a second person — maybe the Senate Majority Leader — who would hold a kind of veto code. So if the president gave that order, what he would actually do is have an aide, probably the secretary of defense, establish communications with our military and he would have to verify that he is, in fact, the president. He would have to use the code he has for that day to say, “This is who I am. This is the code the NSA has issued, and I am legitimately this person.” Then a second person in the room  would say, “I am verifying that the president is giving this order.”

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a president is mentally unstable and he gives an illegal or immoral order on a whim: “We’re going to destroy North Korea. We’re going to destroy Iran.” Would the people around him — the generals, the admirals and the like — just stall that order as long as they could? Or would somebody stand up and say, “Mr. President, I’m not doing this.”

I will try to do this by historical analogy. When Nixon was president, he was drinking a lot. He was kind of strung out. He was freaking out about Watergate, and the secretary of defense said, “Any unusual orders should be checked with me.” Now that doesn’t mean it could have happened. It doesn’t mean that if the president gave an order to some Air Force general he would not have launched. Would there be a some type of Jack Ryan moment where a bunch of people in the room say, “Mr. President, we’re not doing that!” Maybe, although again the system and the people who are in that system are not designed that way.

What advice would you give Trump and his inner circle about their approach to international relations generally and the use of military force specifically?

I would say stop making threats you’re not going to fulfill. You’re not going to drop nuclear weapons on North Korea. You’re not going to drop nuclear weapons in the Middle East. So get over that. Start making an alternative plan for dealing with a nuclear North Korea, including containment. My argument all along, and I’ve been saying this for years, is that the United States need a much stronger conventional military. The United States spends its money on high-end weapons systems when in fact what’s really going to deter people is people in uniform carrying guns.

So my answer would be: Stop rattling the nuclear saber and start thinking about making different kinds of threats. I think in both cases, with small countries, the threat should be that if you use nuclear weapons, if you go to war with the West, we will fight you conventionally, and we won’t stop until we pull you out of the spider hole the way we did with Saddam Hussein. It may be very costly, and it may take a long time. But as Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi can tell you, sooner or later this will end up with you dead.

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